By Susan E. Wagner
I learned early that my home wasn’t safe. Doors were destroyed, plates flew, hands hit. Leather belts were stretched out by the beatings Dad gave. My toys were trashed, and my bedding ripped apart as punishments. All this swirled about me in a seemingly random way.
Dad often told me to go outside and play. Don’t come back until we call you, he’d say. I knew what that meant; I’d be out all day.
Sometimes I left the house and ran, alerted by his tone of voice or a curse. I ran as far as I was allowed, to the trees by the creek, a whole field beyond the house. The trees were huge there and easy to hide behind. The sound of the water flowing soothed me.
Dad hated crying and whining. I had learned to disappear before that happened. One day, when his anger was truly terrible, I ran past the farthest field, past the sentinel cedar and into the forest. I ran until I couldn’t hear his voice anymore.
In the forest the oaks, maples, and my favorite, the pines, shaded me. I leaped over logs and dodged bushes of mountain laurel. At a small clearing, I stopped to breathe in the cooler air. I heard only birds and the sounds of insects.
I was soon exhausted from running, and the trees whispered to me to sit and rest, assuring me of their protection. I had soft moss to sit upon and sunlight to warm me. An old oak offered me a strong trunk to lean against. They whispered they would let me know if Dad entered the forest and I believed them. As I rested, they talked softly to one another, passing messages from one end of the forest to the other. Afterward, they directed me to the wild strawberries and the honeysuckle, so I might eat and drink. It lifted my heart and gave me peace.
I returned to the forest nearly every day in all types of weather. I felt safe there. Each time I learned a little more until I could tell trees apart by the feel of their bark and the sound of their whispers. I knew what mushrooms to eat and where to find the clearest water.
The forest was true to its word. Whenever my father approached, it listened carefully and guided me around him. If he shouted and cursed, I would slip away, returning home by a different route, hoping the long walk took away some of his anger. Or I would wait it out so I could pretend later I didn’t hear him.
Even in the winter, I escaped to the forest, walking for hours in the hope I might outlast Dad’s anger. Sometimes, I did. The forest saved and strengthened me. Every time.
One winter day when the snow was deep, Dad followed me. The trees warned me as soon as I arrived. There’s great danger, they said. He can see your footsteps.
He hunted me, animosity coming off him in waves. Though the trees directed me, and I tried to step lightly, the snow always gave me away. A single whimper escaped my lips. I stopped by an ancient pine, the oldest tree in the forest. I rested my hand against its bark.
Child, it whispered. Take off your boots.
“But my feet will freeze,” I protested softly. “I am not like you.”
Do not worry. I will take care of that.
So, I took off my boots and hid them. My socks too.
Go to the trail, the pine instructed.
As I stepped onto a nearby game trail, my feet shifted and shrunk. Hooves formed. My hands tingled and changed. I dropped. Four hooves now took me quickly along the trail. The speed! Dad’s voice faded with every call.
When he left the forest, I returned to the pine to thank it.
“You saved me,” I told it. “I don’t know how to repay you, but I thank you.” I felt the tree’s pleasure at that.
One day in a dry summer, Dad’s fury drove me out of the house. He came to the forest and called me, but I’d been warned. I hid down a hill and behind a large fallen oak. In anger, Dad threatened to strike a match to set the woods on fire to smoke me out.
Will you help us? The trees asked me.
“Yes, of course,” I whispered. I felt the change inside me as if a door opened and everything wild within was let out.
They say Dad was attacked by a large rogue buck, stabbed by its antlers, and kicked with its hooves. There was no doubt about what happened. When he was buried, no one cared. I felt safe for the first time.
In gratitude, the trees would offer me a spot in the forest to settle if I wished, in whatever form I chose. I thought about it all one afternoon. The forest was the only place I had ever felt welcome, and I wanted to stay. I wanted a place where I could hear the creek, where I could see the dogwoods bloom. I wanted a home.
I didn’t want to be hunted though, so I didn’t want to be an animal. I didn’t care about beauty, so I wouldn’t choose to be a dogwood or a laurel bush. Instead, I finally chose to become a pine tree. I wanted strength and peace and maybe, someday, a chance to help a young girl.
Susan E. Wagner is the author of Unmuted: Voices on the Edge, a collection of hybrid poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including, Agape Review, Fudoki Magazine, and Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Three of her poems were in the recent exhibition, Unique Minds: Creative Voices, at Princeton University. Susan works as a writing coach and is also an editor with The Writing Center at Pearl S. Buck International. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University. Follow her at http://www.susanewagner.com, Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org